Photos and words by Donalrey Nieva
Colombia had been on both of our minds for awhile, so this year, Karen and I finally decided to make it happen! Once tickets were booked, the planning started. As much as we love bikepacking, we decided to stay at one location and do local rides from there. This allowed us to enjoy a nicer place to eat and sleep - after all, this was still a vacation - and a place to store our luggage (we had flown with bike bags, after all). Also, day adventures meant we didn’t have to carry a ton of gear— if you weren’t aware, Colombia has a lot of mountains!
The Drawcord Handlebar and the Stem Caddy were a perfect fit for our trip. They were enough to fit our tools, food, extra tubes and— most importantly— my camera! (Also, they look good.)
During our trip, we were based out of two main locations: El Retiro and Manizales. I go into detail about each of these below.
El Retiro is a small town a little outside of Medellin. Karen and I knew we wanted to explore more of the backroads Colombia had to offer, and El Retiro was perfect for that. After all, staying in Medellin would have involved a climb up Las Palmas - a busy highway with a 10 mile, 3,400 ft climb - just to get to the “good riding.” In El Retiro, we explored the system of country roads that zigzagged between coffee farms. The views were amazing, the climbs were hard, and paved roads were few and far between— exactly what we were looking for.
Manizales is a city known for its coffee farms and its abrupt topography. We experienced this firsthand on one ride where we had to walk for nearly 5 miles on a laughably steep road that approached 30% grades! However, much like El Retiro, the roads were incredible and absolutely gorgeous. After riding by so many coffee farms in El Retiro, we decided to visit one in Manizales. We were greeted with a look of disbelief when we rolled up on our bikes, but we were rewarded with fresh coffee from some of the best coffee beans in the world!
Another reason - well, the main reason - we chose to stay in Manizales is this little climb called Alto de Letras. Actually, it’s quite the opposite of little. It is the longest paved climb in the world - 50 miles and 12,000 ft, to be exact! Of course, we didn’t choose to do that one. We had heard some murmurs of another way to the top - a slightly longer, slightly steeper way that was half on paved roads, and half on dirt. Naturally, this was the one we would do.
It was quite an adventure just getting to the start of the ride, which involved an overnighter. The Stuff Sack Harness proved to be perfect for this! We were able to pack a change of clothes and our other gear. We started the ride at 4 am, thinking that we would be at the hotel by 4pm, just in time to enjoy the natural hot springs at sunset. However, we had underestimated the climb, and at the end we found ourselves riding at night with only one working light between us! It took some maneuvering— and maybe a little good luck at the end— but 70 miles, 16,000 ft later, we arrived at the hotel just after 8 pm, shivering cold but happy we were still alive!